Little Kindnesses

A clockThe COVID-19 pandemic makes me think deeply about my mortality and the mortality of the people I love. Making it to the next birthday seems more of an accomplishment now than last year. I don’t know what will happen between now and December. Who that I know will have become sick? Who will have never recovered? How will I deal with so much grief?

I think about what to do while I’m at home. (I won’t say “stuck at home.” It’s a privilege that I have a home.) Fortunately, I’ve got projects to keep me busy. I can focus on them more intently if I’m not thinking about going out for groceries, planning my next trip to Fort Wayne and looking for the best gas price.

With heavy feelings so infectious, it’s easy to forget the humanity of the people I don’t know. But, it is more important than ever to recognize my neighbor as like me. The one who lives in the next apartment or the stranger who comes to the store at the same time as me. The neighbor that is the “other” I don’t trust. In this crisis, there is no “other” in the eyes the coronavirus. I don’t know their names, who their kids are and whether putting food on the table is a burden. But, they are all facing the same end as me.

Unity in suffering.

It’s more important to me than ever to do small kindnesses for the people I meet. They might be hungry, angry at the people stuck inside with them, lonely for human contact that they’re trying to distance themselves from. I don’t know what they face, but I can be confident that it is hard. I can acknowledge their burden with respect and not add to it.

I’m alone in my house, but I don’t feel lonely. I am busy and can talk to a person or two each day by phone. It is kind for someone to take or return my call. I try to do the same.

The mathematics are against us. Italy is an example of the nations a few days ahead of us that is suffering badly. Others countries that have been taking stronger measures appear to be keeping up. I want to not add to the suffering in my country. Being willing to do whatever I need to is a way to do that.

If the guidance I get is not based in the epidemiology and science, I can be confident that ones providing that guidance don’t value my life or the life of my loved ones. I don’t have time for that.

Film Review: Onward (2020)

Colorful cloudsWhen I saw the trailers for Onward, I thought the scene with unicorns trashing the garbage bins was a good sign. Onward wouldn’t not be the stereotypical fantasy with rainbows, evil godmothers and cotton candy. Unicorns are traditionally noble and honored animals yet in this scene they were fighting over the trash like a couple of grimy opossums. The film is introduced by the peculiar history of magic in the world of Ian & Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt).

My favorite character was Barley. He was enthusiastic and courageous. It was fun to watch how, what started as his imaginary world, ended being closer to reality than his brother Ian (or me) was willing to believe. His enthusiasm seemed over the top when he pulls up to school to pick up Ian, but he also has a larger-than-life Fun Quotient.

One feature of the movie that was enjoyable was the many landscapes and sky scenes. They were varied and beautiful. One quirky scene shows a jet flying through the sky as the characters are looking for treasure. When I go back over the film in my mind, I can’t count how many different sets, characters and animated magical effects were there. It was obviously all hands on deck in coming up with the computer models for the film.

The second time I saw the movie, I was briefly distracted by knowing the famous voice actors behind Ian and Barley. It was a little jarring and didn’t add to my enjoyment of the film. Fortunately, after a few minutes, who the actors were drifted into the background and I wasn’t thinking about Spiderman and Star-Lord any more.

The film revealed a transformation of several characters. Ian and Barley, their mom Laurel Lightfoot  (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) and The Manticore (Octavia Spencer) all were changed people by the end of the story. It was cool that the audience gets to see so many characters growing and changing. Perhaps Ian had the “primary” and most obvious transformation, but the story wasn’t just about him.

Hopefully, Disney make back it’s $1000-ish per frame that they invested in the movie. Based on how much I liked the movie, it would be a shame if it doesn’t pan out. I don’t want Disney to get cold feet and refuse to make more quirky animated films like Onward.

Film Review: Dolittle (2020)

a teapotTalking to animals seems to be a natural skill to list on the resume of a veterinarian. Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) uses it as his primary marketing strategy. Although he’s renowned for caring for animals, when his wife dies, he is thrown into a downward spiral.

When Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) comes to him with an injured squirrel, the boy’s persistence and cheek help Dr. Dolittle get out of his funk. With the help of dozens of animal friends, Robert Downey Jr.’s character begins a quest with many adventures that are tied together by the dying Queen Victoria  (Jessie Buckley) and the mystery of his wife’s death.

I didn’t really enjoy the movie very much. I don’t think that I was in the target demographic. The kids in the theater with me seemed to enjoy it. Looking on the-numbers.com, I see that the film is better than average on its staying power and is a financial success. It was a fun story, just one that I wasn’t drawn into.

A walking stick insect was a cute plot device. It reminded me of the plant that is a Fantastic Beasts that rescues Newt Scamander  from some tight spots.

The film had several intersecting sub-plots. Each story had its own villain and conflict. They were set up to be short and entertaining. The movie doesn’t bog down with detailed character development.

What I liked most about the film was its humor and wit. Dr. Dolittle was quirky and always resourceful. The animals help him and his protégé to win the day.

Film Review: Parasite (2019)

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[Review not spoiler-free.] Parasite, winner of this year’s Best Motion Picture Academy Award, was directed by Bong Joon Ho.

The film focuses on two families, the impoverished and resourceful Kim family (played by Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi, and So-dam Park), and the Park family (played by Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Ji-so Jung and Hyun-jun Jung) who are affluent and a little naïve. Through the poorer family’s manipulation, the Kims trick the wealthy couple to employ the Kims.

The story has themes of escape, captivity, naivete and unpredictability. Things end up much more tragic than anyone in the story (or the audience) could expect.

Escape comes into play throughout the film. The Kims want to escape a life with fragile Wi-Fi access and a drunk who comes to their half-basement apartment window to relieve himself. The Parks want to be safe and free from the (they believe) dangerous servants that the Kims replace.

The freedom longed for through the escape transitions into captivity with the old housekeeper (Jeong-eun Lee) hiding her husband (Myeong-hoon Park) who is trapped by loan sharks in a shadow existence in the Park’s house. A crisis caused by a torrential rainstorm show that the Kims are also captive by their environment. Their captivity becomes literal as the Kims are stuck hiding under a table hiding from the Park parents.

Naivete is the best description of Mrs. Park who trusts the Kims without proper supervision of the tutors. Also, they don’t have familiarity with life in the poorer parts of Seoul. The Parks talk about a smell which acts in the story as a surrogate for the essence of poverty of the people living like the Kims. The affluent can’t recognize the smell because it is from an alien world.

In a low point of the plot, the Kim’s father suggests that one shouldn’t make plans because life is so unpredictable. The film has very little violence until it transitions into a horrific conflict. I wasn’t prepared for so much blood because I was unaware of the building peril. During the transition, there is a symbolic scene where pools of blood and water are flowing together after one of the violent attacks.

After reaching a high point with a celebratory party, the film falls deeper and deeper into its very grim outcome. Both the Kim and Park families are devastated and crushed-both parasite and host suffer.

The emotions through the film are fluid as the characters go through a series of triumphs and catastrophes. The storytelling didn’t force specific emotions on me with a Disneyesque conclusion. The score of such films can be a lever to aid the “Feel this” command. Parasite’s score is more subdued. When it’s noticed, the music is in the service of the story and is not a essential part of the producer’s emotional control panel.

Parasite wasn’t what I expected and turned out to be something much better.

Film Review: Spies in Disguise (2019)

2020-02-10_Spies-in-DisguiseSpies In Disguise is fanciful and lighthearted. It isn’t a great movie, but it’s good enough to enjoy for a first viewing.

Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) and Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland) are unlikely partners. The former is a super spy that work alone who is paired with an idealistic inventor that no one appreciates.

Walter’s inventions are admittedly silly, but they add to the charm of the movie. The film is about fun, transformation, caricatures and enthusiasm.

Walter thinks that fighting crime can be fun. It isn’t about killing the bad guys but rather capturing them safely to face justice. Lance is focused on getting in, getting out and winning the mission.

The villain Killian (voiced by Ben Mendelsohn) manages to trick the agency to think that Lance is their enemy and hilarity ensues. Quickly. There are several transformations through the movie. The pigeon “disguise” is just the most obvious. As the movie progresses, Lance is transformed to see things more Walter’s way.

The characters in the movie are all pretty 1 1/2 dimensional. They are caricatures of James Bond and Q, but in an enthusiastic and loose manner.

Spies in Disguise was inspired by a short film Pigeon Impossible by Lucas Martell The creative team had a lot of fun developing a story from a short vignette into a full-length film.

My biggest disappointment with the movie was how small the audience was the day after its release. Maybe it was competing with bigger name movies and I was at an afternoon showing?

Spies in Disguise is fun and enthusiastic.

Film Review: 1917 (2019)

A brown flagIt’s morning and the sky is gray with muted colors. The solders have no villain to blame and the greatest longing of everyone is to go home. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) get called and they take on the mission.

The film’s sole vision of life is a nameless baby in a devastated city. The protagonists have Friendship, Loyalty, Brotherhood and Courage. It isn’t much, but it is what they need to charge past the rats and snipers and barbed wire and dead bodies.

1917 suggests that the audience recall the despair so that today’s challenges are not so oppressive.

Cinematographically, the movie is flowing and continuous. Much of the film is a single continuous shot. Most colors are chosen to have a low saturation. The screen is filled with browns and blacks, tans and grays. The result is a draining sadness.

1917 is full of sadness. The stark beauty of the devastation and the heightened emotions are what make the movie both repulsive and beautiful at the same time. One’s mind absorbs tension and danger from the screen. The bland colors are a muted reminder of how the extraordinary can become ordinary.

The spectacle follows winding trenches and broken walls. As the critical battle is approaching, a soldier is singing an incongruously beautiful song. Then, the urgency is redoubled as the mission might fail despite the herculean journey.

1917 is a really beautiful film. It successfully aspires to be a great work of art.

Don’t go when you want to have fun or to get joy and hopefulness. All I could do by the end was weep in empathy as Schofield looks at his distant family, hoping one day to return. As I listened to the closing credits pass, I was ready for change.

Film Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

A movie reelI believe the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was successful. It led me to think about how I can apply Fred Rogers’ lessons to my life. It showed how I might be a better person, one who is honorable and positive.

This story about the children’s television host Fred Rogers is not biographical. In other words, it’s not a biopic like 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This present film is inspired by an article in Esquire magazine, Can You Say…Hero?, written by Tom Junod and published in November 1998. The movie imagines how Rogers might have interacted with the journalist as Junod researched the article.

Early in his interactions with Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the film’s version of the Esquire journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is cynical. He wonders how much of Fred Rogers is real and whether his kindness is a performance and not sincere. The question isn’t directly answered. Viewers can watch the film and come to their own conclusions. Fred’s persistence in developing a relationship with the writer changes the journalist’s attitude. He ends up writing a positive article that doesn’t match his reputation for writing biting celebrity pieces.

One central conflict in the movie is between Lloyd Vogel and his father Jerry Vogel (Chris Cooper). The film follows the Vogels as they develop a relationship with Rogers. Fred Rogers presents the Vogel’s conflict as an opportunity to apply forgiveness. Despite his positive and prayerful attitude, Rogers doesn’t try to force the Vogels to reach a picture-book reconciliation.

In this film, Fred Rogers portrays an alternative view of what it means to be a man. One doesn’t need to be hard and rigid. You can care about other people yet stay true to yourself. Fred Rogers is persistent in meeting with the journalist, but they connect on Roger’s terms. Through that effort, the film shows that the humanity of both of them is worthy of honor.

This movie had many strong emotional moments. It is a film that I want to see again.

Review: Knives Out (2019)

A red knife stabbing downwardKnives Out is a rare movie that has the entire audience laughing as they leave the theater. The film is a whodunit hoping to solve why the prolific mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) was found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party.

Thrombey’s family are all people you would love to hate. They’re self-absorbed and taking advantage of Harlan’s generosity. As the movie progresses, the audience learns that all of the family might have it out for the dead patriarch. Harlan Thrombey’s nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), gets tangled up in the whole affair.

A silent character is a gigantic display of hundreds of knives pointing toward a central hole. The interviews by the police take place in front of the art. It is ominous and adds to the tension.

Angela Landsbury and Tom Bosley from Murder, She Wrote make a quick cameo at Marta’s home—her family is obsessed with watching murder mysteries. When Harlan’s family speculates what happened, they choose different mystery novels as possible analogies to the current situation.

Someone unknown hired the renowned investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death. Blanc is trying to find who fits in the center of the whole mystery. The family is initially wowed by his reputation, but no one knows what he’s up to.

This mystery is fun and clever. Any mystery that includes a spider wrangler in the credits isn’t self-conscious about the genre. I should have seen it a few weeks ago when I needed some good, unselfconscious laughs.

Review: Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

2019-12-30_3DGlassesJumanji: The Next Level begins the year after the high school students from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had graduated. In college, Spencer (Alex Wolff) had felt apart from the group. They all were getting on with their lives and he felt inadequate. It’s winter vacation and they all head home. Unwillingly, Ashley (Ashley Scott), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) get pulled back into the game to start a new adventure.

In real life, Spencer’s grandpa Eddie Gilpin, (Danny DeVito) is complaining about the aches and pains of old age. He’s visited by his old restaurateur partner Milo Walker (Danny Glover). They land in the jungle wondering whether they were in Florida or had died. Milo gradually learns to appreciate computer games. Getting old doesn’t seem so bad when you’re about to die. Being in a young body helps too!

The movie reprises the characters within the game. We meet Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Other characters from the prior film include Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas) and the guide Nigel Billingsley (Rhys Darby) The expanded game adds a new player, the thief Ming Fleetfoot, played by Awkwafina. The assignment of characters to players was shuffled, to the chagrin of Fridge and Ashley.

Once they’re in the game, all of them get swept along. The experienced characters teach Eddie and Milo how the game works. Each adventure is thoroughly infused with fun. As the players get used to the new levels, they grow into their roles in the game as well as within themselves. By the last challenge, the characters are truly enjoying using their strengths.

The movie had a lot of humor. Perhaps the nerdiest joke was when Dwayne Johnson threw a character in anger and a rock fell on him. Cake too.

I really recommend the movie. It didn’t have the hackneyed theme of saving the world from existential threats like Avengers: End Game and Terminator: Dark Fate.  Thank goodness!

Review: Frozen II (2019)

A paper airplaneFrozen II is a journey from the comfort and joy of home into an alien and dangerous world. The danger centers on broken trust. Elsa (Idina Menzel) learns that she must resolve a betrayal that happened before she was born. In addition, the trust between the sisters is fragile. Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to help magical Elsa against the new dangers while Elsa wants to stride out on her own.

There is a legend about an enchanted forest that is the focus of the film. It has been walled off from the rest of the world with no way in or out. Elsa hears an ethereal voice and remembers a story from her childhood about the North country. To solve the mystery, Elsa explore the North with Anna, Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff).

Memory is an recurring theme in the movie. Elsa goes on a kind of vision quest to learn what a magical river knows about the past. To resolve that past requires Anna’s fortitude when she realizes what Arendelle might need to sacrifice. The friends come to accept the history of their family, even though it is sad and painful.

The classical four elements, Fire, Earth, Air and Water are important forces in the enchanted forest. They seem dangerous and hostile, but they are gradually tamed. To understand the mysterious forest requires perseverance from both Elsa and the rest of her friends. They find the truth and liberate the forest so that its people can become part of the greater world again.

From the outset, Frozen II lets the audience know that they don’t need to see the first Frozen to appreciate it. In the first scene you see that Elsa & Anna’s childhood had been revised. The movie doesn’t look back and it stands strong on the new foundation.

Often filmmakers strive to bring out a specific emotion at the close of their film. The producers try to close the story with an exclamation point instead of an ellipsis. Frozen II does that better than most by eliciting an emotion that is rare in films. In the coda, that feeling is reinforced with the joy and freedom that fills the new Arendelle with magic.